Bonner County will spend ARPA money, return funding to EMS

EMS Director: ‘This is a big victory for the community’

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 9 to return $800,300 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the county’s Emergency Medical Services budget nearly a year after the monies were originally allocated and then, due to a campaign against ARPA spending, revoked.

“We’re super excited that they took this step to return those funds,” EMS Chief Jeff Lindsey told the Reader following the vote, adding later: “This is a big victory for the community.”

Lindsey originally requested the funds in September 2021, citing an inflated cost of supplies, a doubled call volume and loss of revenue due to pressures to treat patients at home rather than transporting them to the hospital, which was already at capacity due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus sweeping through the county last fall.

Commissioners approved Lindsey’s request for the $800,300 but, in the months that followed, public debate over whether the funds came with “strings attached” such as forced compliance with vaccine or mask mandates — a notion originally introduced by Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, who requested ARPA funds but then returned them — prompted the board to change course. 

Commissioners passed a resolution in January putting a hold on ARPA spending and stipulating that “all monies identified as ARPA funds that were allocated to Bonner County budgets shall be returned to the originating ARPA account.” Despite having already spent the money on life saving equipment, EMS was forced to repay the ARPA funds.

“This would decimate our current and future budgets and we would be unable to provide the current level of service,” Lindsey told the Reader at the time.

Nonetheless, the funds were returned, per the resolution. 

The Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office then issued an opinion in February stating that “Congress did not confer authority on the Executive Branch to institute a mask or vaccine mandate by passage of ARPA,” and, therefore, spending the funds would most likely not obligate Bonner County to implement federal mandates.

Commissioners appeared to take that opinion to heart on Aug. 9, as they unanimously approved the resolution, presented by the Clerk’s Office, to reopen the EMS budget and increase the “ARPA COVID Mitigation” line item by $800,300.

Lindsey said the funds have been and will be used to update malfunctioning equipment and cover other costs associated with the department’s COVID response over the past year.

“That’s a huge win for us and the community, being able to get [this equipment] out there,” he said. “That’s just an example of something that would have taken a very long time to budget in versus having that money available to purchase those things right away.”

The past year has seen EMS at odds with some members of the community opposed to ARPA spending and, in some cases, at odds with vocal COVID deniers. At the height of the Delta spread, Lindsey expressed “frustration” with that discourse, encouraged people to “come walk” in the shoes of medics, nurses and doctors, and to “stop making unsubstantiated statements like that, which isn’t helping anything.”

“As the leader of the organization, I definitely don’t mind being the face, especially when we’re getting beat up on for trying to … improve the delivery of EMS that we do in the community by use of funding that is exactly for that reason,” Lindsey told the Reader on Aug. 9. “To be beat up over that, it’s a little frustrating. 

“But now we’ve come full circle and the funding is being put back into where it needs to be — where it originally was supposed to be — and we’re going to use that funding to make our service better and to … take the strain off our budget,” he added.

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